3 out of 5
Another genre stalwart joins the Hard Case Crime ranks, as Harlan Ellison’s first novel, Web of the City, is republished, added to with three short stories of thematically linked content.
Web does not read like a first novel, even accepting that the writer had several short works leading into this. Ellison’s narrative voice is tight, and focused; it’s awash in the language of the street – it’s the 50s, and Rusty Santoro is trying to bow out of leadership of street gang the Cougars – but it doesn’t necessarily have the showy vibe many slang-infused genre books have, perhaps owing to the story coming out of Harlan doing hands-on research from within a gang. As such, while it’s stuffed with quaint turns of phrases and characters with nicknames like, er, Poop, and about 50 different terms for weed, it has an organic patter to it, terse with character bravado – toughs acting tough – but not a forced-upon veneer from the author. By the same token, though, there’s a tonal juggling here that makes Web quite slow to the punch, with Ellison straddling the line between a character drama and pulp crime. It’s a push and pull: I mention toughs acting tough, because that’s kind of how it comes across at first, with these high school kids wearing leather jackets and making angry faces at one another at the shake shoppe, flicking out switch blades for threats before shuffling off to the corner.
But there’s a turning point: Rusty wants to quit, and there’s a requisite struggle with the up-and-coming Cougars leader before he can do so. This is the “web” that catches Rusty, that as much as he wants to go straight, the streets keep kicking him back toward doing wrong. His eyes are opening to the downward spiral he’s on, and he can see the same for his sister, Dolores, also in the gang. When she’s subjected to violence, though, Rusty’s goals are set aside for vengeance… And that’s when Harlan’s dual plotting – the pulp; the drama – starts to feel more visceral and alive on both accounts. It’s gripping stuff, and gets shockingly violent at points, making it clear that these were actual gangs, to be feared, while this same violence is used to drive Rusty deeper into his own inner conflicts.
This narrative shift doesn’t necessarily feel as purposeful, though, giving the book a non-linear progression, with the first half being relatively slow and wandering, and the latter almost absurdly over-the-top at points. The atmosphere is rich at all times, thanks to that lived-in vibe, there’s just the sense that Ellison became clearer on how he wanted to write the book as he went along, and while all of the characters are stereotypes to an extent, the book barely has room for anyone to feel developed outside of Rusty; some more time on his family might’ve enriched the opening section a bit and juxtaposed the intensity of the concluding half quite well.
The Hard Case Crime edition has, as mentioned, some additional short stories, published prior to Web in various magazines. The first is actually a couple chapters (nearly) straight from Web that were fleshed out to the book, which is neat to see but also a little repetitive, as there’s almost no change. The other two are also gang related, capturing Web of the City’s mean spirit and violence, though without the emotional component. These are well chosen additions, and an appreciated way to pad out the book’s length to give even more bang for one’s buck.